Storytelling

Nine Options for High Stakes Conflicts Without Violence

In Kip and the Age of Wonderbeasts, a young woman stands with her guitar in front of the nose of a giant monkey

In Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Kipo befriends the beasts around her instead of fighting them.

Whether you’re avoiding violence, looking to switch things up, or just don’t like writing fight scenes, it’s useful to have options for important conflicts that don’t involve the hero maiming or killing something. To that end, let’s go over some likely contenders. With each option, I’ve also included some possible turning point matches, so you can start planning the pivotal moment where your hero earns their victory.

1. Obstacles & Traps

A prince faces an enormous labyrinth In BBC’s Merlin, Prince Arthur faces tests in the Labyrinth of Gedref to redeem himself after slaying a unicorn.

To reach a magic artifact, prove they’re worthy, or lift a curse, your protagonist might need to enter a place with dangerous obstacles. These obstacles can test the hero in different ways. Maybe the hero needs the knowledge to read an inscription, the finesse to avoid a collapsing floor, the cleverness to navigate a labyrinth, or the fortitude to say no to temptations.

An obstacle course has to be carefully integrated into the world and story, or it could feel contrived. It doesn’t have to be a D&D-type dungeon; instead, it could be a high security corporate headquarters. If you do choose something like an ancient tomb with mystical artifacts, take care to avoid colonialist narratives. Even if there are no sapient creatures there to kill, it won’t look good if the hero takes historical artifacts from another culture. Plundering an abandoned European castle will go over better than plundering an ancient Incan crypt.

The clever-deduction turning point works well for obstacles and tests, as it does for most conflicts. In this case, it might be part of a Zelda-like puzzle the hero must solve to disarm a trap. In fantasy stories, it’s also common for obstacles to include a temptation, in which case a battle-of-will turning point is appropriate. You can also use a leap-of-faith turning point by making the hero follow directions for the maze that seem disastrous. In that case, the hero wins the day by placing their trust in the right person or divinity.

2. Fortifying Against a Threat

a man tries to shut a door as a dinosaur tries to get in In Jurassic Park, the protagonists undergo a long struggle to get the door bolts working. First they have to restart the power, then they have to navigate the computer system, and finally they have to close the door on a hungry dinosaur.

Something is trying to get in, and the heroes need to keep it out. While that something could be a monster, like a zombie, it could also be water on a sinking vessel or sunlight, if your heroes are vampires. For an exciting action sequence, you’ll want something that can start breaking through at the seams. That way, a hero must push the intruder back and patch up the hole at great personal risk. You can increase the tension by making the invader more aggressive or the fortress flimsier.

Fortify conflicts require a time frame for the threat, or the heroes can never declare victory. Maybe your zombies fall asleep at daybreak, your heroic vampires will be safe when night falls, or your sinking vessel just needs to get through a storm or reach land. You can ramp up the tension during the conflict by having the heroes fall back to a smaller and smaller space.

If you’re willing to let a character die, a sacrifice turning point works especially well for these conflicts. It’s usually easier to justify why someone might need to pull a lever from outside the fortress, where they will be quickly killed. A battle of will can also be used for characters that must overcome their fears to patch weaknesses in their defense.

3. Negotiation

A giant lion talks to a woman in a scary crown in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan offers in own life in a negotiation with the White Witch so that Edmund won’t be harmed.

Let your hero avoid calamity with a social conflict. They might resolve disputes between factions, convince an antagonist that it’s not in their best interest to burn a village to the ground, or get food or medicine from someone reluctant to share. As long as your audience knows something disastrous will happen if the negotiations go south, the scene can keep their attention. To avoid making the negotiation feel contrived, give all parties a strong, self-serving reason to refuse the hero’s requests.

A gesture-of-goodwill turning point works with many social conflicts. In it, the hero makes a generous offer out of the desire to help, without asking for anything in return. Your hero can also use a clever deduction to uncover what someone’s real motivation is, or they can have a hidden plan wherein the antagonist agrees to something that’s more favorable to the hero than it appears. Surprisingly, a sacrifice turning point also works well. In that case, the hero agrees to give themself to the antagonist as part of the deal.

4. A Dangerous Ritual or Experiment

On the cover of Winter Tide, a woman sits by the sea, reaching out In Winter Tide, Aphra must undergo a dangerous ritual to save a friend who’s being corrupted by an extra-dimensional monster.

In speculative fiction, the hero might have to stop the ultimate weapon from launching or undo the deadly curse. Alternately, dangerous magic or untested technology could be the only way to avert a more natural disaster. Risky magic or tech-related conflicts might require the hero to inject themself with alien nanites to gain radiation resistance, enter a meditative state that could get the attention of the elder gods, or just take apart a huge bomb in hopes that it can be defused without detonating.

Since these types of conflicts often depend on the complicated rules of your world, implementing them requires careful communication. Tell your audience not just what’s at stake, but what your hero has to do to succeed, and all the places this procedure could go wrong. Maybe if you hero doesn’t manage to assume command of the nanites in their body, they’ll become an alien drone. Maybe if the hero takes too long to lift the curse in their meditative state, an evil spirit might close in on their location. If the procedure is supposed to be routine in your setting, use sabotage by an antagonist to raise tension.

Since the rules for how this conflict works are up to you, a prior achievement turning point can be easy to arrange. Maybe your hero got flak for wearing a protective charm from their home village because everyone else thought it was silly superstition, but it turns out that charm can hide them from evil spirits. Experiments and rituals often have costs and consequences, so a sacrifice turning point should also be easy. If the hero doesn’t fully understand how the technology or magic operates, a clever deduction at a critical time can help them fill that in.

5. Wagers

Coraline frowns as she sits at the table with Other Mother, a monster with button eyes Because she knows that Other Mother likes games, Coraline proposes a wager where if she wins a treasure hunt, Other Mother will set her free.

When your villain has all the cards, your hero can propose a wager as a last resort. To do so, they’ll need to offer the villain something extra in the event that the villain wins. This might mean surrendering themself to the villain or cooperating with the villain instead of fighting them. If the hero wins, the villain might agree to let them go if they’re captured, depart in peace if they’ve come for blood, or allow the hero to save a character who’s dying. While all this setup is pretty elaborate, a wager allows you to do something that’s difficult otherwise: add stakes to any contest or game of your choosing. It can be a dance-off, a chess match, or a treasure hunt.

When creating a wager, it’s important that the agreement is believable. If the hero has already broken a promise to the villain, the villain doesn’t have a strong reason to believe they’ll win the wager, or the villain isn’t getting enough if they win, that will be a problem. An untrustworthy villain isn’t a huge issue if the situation is desperate, but the hero should still consider that when deciding to make the wager. Then, if your villain wouldn’t realistically keep their word, let your hero gain some advantage during the contest that they can use for the showdown afterward.

In many fairy tales, a prior achievement turning point is used for unwinnable challenges the antagonist gives the hero. These tales begin with the hero helping someone out of the goodness of their heart. Because of this, that person* arrives to help the hero during their time of need. An antagonist might also build temptations into their contests that require a battle of will. Otherwise, a clever deduction in which the hero pieces clues together is probably the best bet for these.

6. Recruiting

In Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Pippin grabs the nose of Treebeard In Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin have trouble convincing the Ents to join their side against the ones hurting their trees, so instead the hobbits trick Treebeard into going where he will see the devastation for himself.

Instead of negotiating with a potential antagonist, your hero can focus on convincing someone to switch sides. While it’s possible for someone on Team Evil to join Team Good, making that believable can be tricky. Instead, they might convince a neutral character to join Team Good or an antagonist to leave Team Evil. Even with a smaller switch, these character changes will require some groundwork. Before the conflict, the audience will need to know why the neutral character might want to fight evil or why the antagonist is dissatisfied with villainy. Then, to ensure the conflict is tense, something terrible should be about to happen when the hero should finally convince them.

Since this conflict will be an important personal moment for the character that changes, it offers a great opportunity to discuss the symbolic or emotional side of your story. Your hero might mention whatever themes you want to explore or describe their own emotional journey to build a connection with the character they’re recruiting.

The gesture of goodwill turning point was designed for converting sympathetic antagonists, but it’s not your only option. The hero might take a leap of faith that the character will do what’s right, and that character might respond positively to being trusted and relied on. A clever deduction might be used in discovering what will convince the character, or a hidden plan could maneuver the character into a position where they can see for themself why fighting evil is necessary.

7. A Chase

In Toy Story, toys on a remote control car chase after a moving truck In Toy Story, Buzz and Woody chase a moving truck so they won’t be left behind.

No, your hero doesn’t have to fight that villain or monster; they can run away! If you want the stakes of your conflict to be higher than the lives of those who are fleeing, they can also be running toward something important. Perhaps your hero must deliver a critical message detailing how to stop the villain, or they must reach the enchanted castle that holds the cure to the sickness in their village. Alternatively, your heroes could be doing the chasing – maybe a thief has stolen something critical to saving the day.

During the chase, your hero might need to cleverly navigate terrain or surmount physical obstacles. Perhaps the route includes quicksand, hornet’s nests, or thick crowds. An antagonist making chase might herd the hero into a dead end, cut them off, or send spy drones and tracking devices after them.

A clever deduction is probably the best match for this one. Let the hero think of a previously unknown shortcut or lure the antagonist somewhere that will delay them long enough for the hero to win the day. Luring the villain somewhere dangerous could also be implemented as a hidden plan. If you have an extra character, they can pull off a sacrifice by leading the villain away, resulting in their death or capture.

8. Hiding

Four kids hiding on a space ship In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Rascals, four crew members are accidentally transformed into kids. After their ship is hijacked by enemies, they hide in the Jefferies tubes while trying to take the ship back.

Not only can your hero run, they can hide, too. This is great for high tension stories with monsters that far outmatch the protagonist. While hiding may seem boring at first, it doesn’t have to be. The first step is to make the environment interesting. Are they hiding in a graveyard or an abandoned factory? Then your hero might have to sneak around the environment to stay hidden rather than choosing one spot and sticking there. You can also give them a companion such as a child that they have to keep silent and calm. Do you need to make staying silent and still harder? Add some creepy crawlies o their hiding space.

Similar to the fortifying-against-a-threat conflict, you’ll need an expiration date on the threat. That should be pretty easy. If the monster or villain doesn’t assume the hero is gone and has given up, reinforcements could arrive.

Because of the requirement to stay still and silent, a battle-of-will turning point is often a great match for hiding. Just clarify what drives the hero to break cover, whether it’s creepy crawlies, the desire to leap out and save someone, or the urge to panic and run away. The hero can also use clever deduction to find the right hiding place, in which case once they do, the rest of the conflict should be falling action rather than high tension.

9. A Moral Dilemma

In The 100, Jake is recording a video to expose a government secret when his wife sees him. In the 100, Abby and Jake argue over whether to tell everyone that their space station is running out of air or keep it confidential to avoid a panic.

One of two bad things are about to happen, and your protagonist must choose between them. Perhaps saving the city means destroying an artifact that a loved one needs to live, or the villain is threatening to kill hostages unless Team Good surrenders. Add a deadline so your hero doesn’t have forever to decide, and watch as they struggle to find the right answer. Dilemmas are a wonderful way to bring out the story’s internal plotlines; they can highlight important relationships or force your character to grow as a person.

It’s up to you whether your moral dilemma has a right answer or not. If it does, then a battle-of-will turning point is usually appropriate. The hero may know the right answer, but that doesn’t mean choosing it is easy. Otherwise, you can use a clever deduction to allow your hero to find a third option that wasn’t obvious before.


Whenever you want an exciting conflict, make sure you have 1) a likable character 2) facing a high chance of failure 3) that will have dire consequences. That’s what creates excitement; no violence is needed.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    A very good list of high stakes that have nothing to do with fighting … I’m certainly going to try all of them out over time.

  2. Danita Rambo

    This is an absolutely great list! So helpful. Can’t wait to come back to it as I’m crafting my next story.

  3. SunlessNick

    Fantastic list!

  4. AK Nephtali

    All the thanks!

    This is great for my political high fantasy. Will bookmarks and return to this

  5. Bellis

    Cool! Very helpful – bookmarked

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